Melba and Nathaniel Sweets

The late Nathaniel and Melba Sweets, longtime leaders of The St. Louis American, were recently inducted into the Missouri Press Association Newspaper Hall of Fame.

Nathaniel Sweets joined The American as advertising manager in 1928, the year it was founded, and became publisher in 1933. Melba A. Sweets, longtime editor and columnist at The American, continued to write for the paper after Nathaniel sold it in 1981 to a group that included current publisher and executive editor Donald M. Suggs.

Nathaniel passed in 1988 and Melba in 2005. He remains the publisher emeritus of the paper, and she is editor emeritus.

Nathaniel was instrumental in keeping The American alive and vibrant for more than 45 years as owner/publisher. His vision was, “To give a voice to the African-American community that was lacking, and bring them information they could use. The St. Louis American should carry news (targeted) to the African-American community and anybody who wants to know about it.”

Throughout the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, The American continued to gain respect and readership, enabled by its venerable editor Bennie G. Rodgers. When Emmit Till was lynched in 1955, Malcolm X made a personal visit to The American's office to visit with Rodgers. Rodgers, who worked for the paper for more than 50 years, is still known as the “dean of black journalism in St. Louis.”

Nathaniel, the youngest in a family of 17, grew up in Southwest Missouri and attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City. He used the money he had saved up for law school to purchase the newspaper, said Fred Sweets, his son, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and contributing editor to The American.

Melba was born in St. Louis and attended Sumner High School, Sumner Teachers College (her mother’s alma mater) and then Howard University.

“In her time at Howard, she would sit on the lawn in Anacostia, the historic black section of D.C., and talk with Sterling Brown, Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes,” said Ellen Sweets, her daughter, who recently retired from the Denver Post after a long career in journalism.

Melba Sweets and Langston Hughes were to remain lifelong friends.

She taught in the St. Louis Public Schools from 1930 until her marriage in 1937. The child Chuck Berry was one of her students.

“Married teachers had to give up their jobs to the single people who were waiting for work,” Mrs. Sweets told Doris A. Wesley, in the 1999 book Lift Every Voice and Sing. “So, because I happened to marry a newspaperman, that’s how I got into writing.”

With Thelma Dickerson, Melba authored a popular column, “We’re Telling,” which she described as “a simple little social column.” Langston Hughes once described it as the best such column he had ever read.

At times Melba tackled controversial topics, such as the 1947 appearance in St. Louis of the singer and activist Paul Robeson, who was then being Red-baited as a Communist. She considered her news story about Robeson’s death in 1976 as her most important piece of journalism.

“She was just way ahead of the game,” Fred Sweets said of his mother. “My father was concerned about my mother interviewing Paul Robeson because it was a Communist era. He was worried, but courageous.”

She also traveled to Castro-era Cuba and wrote a series about her journey.

She proudly remembered a piece she did on Jim Crow laws in St. Louis, when she profiled an actress who opposed segregation yet was appearing at the segregated American Theater. The front page headline cried, “Never again” as the actress vowed never to play the segregated theater again.

“She really evoked the standards of an earlier time, when blackness and excellence were expected to go hand in hand, and the whole village raised the child,” said Jabari Asim, former reporter for The American and current editor of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine.

In 1977 and 1978 she served on juries for the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, becoming only the second African American at the time to have done so.

Thinking of his father’s successes, Fred said that Nathaniel was most proud of the success of Melba’s column, the longtime relationship with Bennie Rodgers, the impact the newspaper had on local politics, his many community outreach projects and his relationship with Joseph Pulitzer, former publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  

“He was so proud of my mother’s work,” Fred said.

“She loved words so much. She respected them. She wanted everyone who worked for the paper to embrace her love of the language,” Ann Scales, Style editor for the Boston Globe, said of Melba. “She cared about words and how they were used more than anybody I know.”

Scales, who worked under Mrs. Sweets at The American in the 1980s, is one of many black journalists – including her own children – schooled under the scrupulous editor who advanced far in the field. In addition to Ellen and Fred, a third child, Nathaniel Allen “Buzzy” Sweets Jr., also worked as a photojournalist for The American between service in the military and a career at St. Louis County Juvenile Court.

“She helped give birth to both a newspaper and a family of journalists – literally,” Fred said. “The American was always a center of activity for our family, leading up to the publication date.”

“I remember lively discussions about what would be on the front page. I remember her laying out the paper with Bennie Rodgers. Hearing the press’ roar,” he said. “There was no greater experience.”

Even as her health declined in her later years, Melba remained an avid reader and critic of journalism.

Her son Buzzy Sweets said, “As long as she could, a young man would bring her the paper every week – until she got to point when she just couldn’t read it anymore.” Her fierce advocacy for proper English remained with her until the end. She lived to 97.

Ellen said that in her final days at Barnes-Jewish Extended Care, her mother regularly corrected the nurses and nurses’ aides when they spoke improperly.

“One day, she was refusing to eat,” Ellen said. “One nurse, Sylvia, said, ‘Mother Sweets, if you don’t drink this for me, I’m gonna split an infinitive.’”

The Hall of Fame induction program was held at the annual Missouri Press Association convention in Branson. At the awards event, MPA president Joe May presented Ellen and Fred Sweets with the award for their parents. The 2011 Hall of Fame class also included Ron Jennings of the Sedalia Democrat, Don Warden of the Gasconade County Republican, Doug Davis of the Lamar Democrat and the late Norman Colman of Colman's Rural World.

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